Winter 1995, Volume 12.1
The Big Sky
Anne Jarrell (B.A., University of Colorado-Boulder) is a former copy editor for The New York Times and reporter/feature writer for the Chicago-Sun Times. Her work has appeared in North Atlantic Review.
It is six in the morning and Nina Gelinas's boyfriend, Dan, is sprawled on one of the oversized pillows that serve as furniture, flipping channels with the remote control. A game show, a Lassie rerun, the news. Nina, who has just come into the living room, stands and watches the images roll by. The screen freezes on a woman in peep show lingerie, sitting on the edge of a bed, rubbing her crotch.
"Shit," says Nina. "I thought they only allowed that stuff on late at night."
Dan jerks around, and Nina realizes that he hadn't heard her come in.
"You're up early."
"Insomnia," Nina says. "Did you sleep at all?"
"Why don't you try to get an hour in before going to work?" Last night a friend of Dan's from the crew had come over and brought a few grams of cocaine.
"I've saved a little," he says, holding up a piece of folded cellophane containing fine white powder. "To get me through the day."
Nina shrugs and goes into the kitchen. Sometimes she wishes he did less drugs. She decides to make a big breakfast—cornmeal pancakes with blueberries. She has time to kill. She doesn't have to be at work until ten.
Ever since moving in with Dan three months ago, Nina has taken up cooking, with mixed results. Last week, she decided to make enchiladas from scratch. But it took her all day just to prepare the refried beans—soaking, boiling, frying, mashing, refrying—and when they were done she didn't have the energy to do the rest. The beans sat in the pan in the refrigerator all week until she finally threw them out.
Ever since moving in with Dan, she has also been very fastidious about cleaning the house—scrubbing the bathroom and kitchen, dusting and vacuuming the wall-to-wall carpet every week. The house is a small ranch painted a Necco-wafer green in Table Mesa, a subdivision of tract homes on the plains on the edge of town. Nina thinks the house is ugly—she would prefer to be in the older section of town, near the university—but when she and Dan decided to live together, it was all they could afford. What she hates most about the house is that there are no trees around it. There aren't any trees, in fact, in the whole subdivision, though it was built right after World War II. It's a testament to the ugliness of this place, she thinks, that no one ever planted a sapling; no one was going to stick around long enough to see it grow.
Dan comes into the kitchen as she is serving the food. He has showered and is dressed for work in jeans and heavy boots.
"How do you feel?"
"Not bad," he says, but his face is pale and drawn.
She puts the plates down on the white and gold speckled Formica table that came with the house. The table is pushed up against the window, which looks out onto the backyard, a square spit of land that runs into an identical spit of land that is the backyard of the house behind theirs. Separating the yards is a chain link fence. From the window, Nina can make out the pink and red chickens printed on the thin cotton curtains in her neighbor's kitchen. She looks away.
"I saw an ad in the paper for a Corolla. It has eighty thousand miles on it. They want five hundred and fifty. It sounds like it might be what I'm looking for."
Dan nods and keeps eating.
"What do you think?"
"Too many miles on it?"
"Depends on what condition it's in."
"Will you take a look at it for me?"
"How about after work?"
"Can you pick me up?"
"I'll be there."
After Dan has left, Nina does the dishes and empties the overflowing ashtrays. She stacks the newspapers and fluffs the pillows. She dresses for work—a brown leather mini skirt and a matching vest with fringe. Robert and Deborah, the couple who own the leather shop where Nina works, insist that their employees wear what they sell. Deborah says it sets the right image and tone.
Just before leaving the house, Nina phones about the Toyota. The man who answers says that he bought it as a second car for his family. Now that his children are grown and have left home, he and his wife don't need it. "It's a great little car. In top condition," he says. Nina is glad that a family, rather than a student, owned the car. They probably took better care of it. She makes an appointment to see the car that night at six. She jots down instructions to the man's house, and then repeats them to him to make sure she got it right.
At the highway, Nina waits for the bus to take her the two miles into the center of town. It is late May, sunny and warm, and, for a change, she doesn't mind the long wait. Buses in this part of the world, she has learned, run infrequently, since everyone owns cars.
She has saved five hundred dollars to buy a car. She and Dan split common expenses—rent, food, utilities. That was the agreement they reached when they decided to live together. Actually, it was Dan's idea. When he'd lived with Verna, the girlfriend who preceded Nina, they'd fought about money. He said he learned that it was better to be clear about it, right from the start. Nina would have preferred that he never brought it up.
The bus drops her off at the edge of the mall, a two-block section of downtown that is closed to traffic. The shop is on the corner of the mall, in a building renovated to look like a Mexican adobe with white stucco walls and ceiling beams. Phantasmagoria, the shop's name, is scrawled across the plate glass window in gold script.
A woman with a leather knapsack slung over her shoulder is leaving as Nina arrives. Nina guesses she is a college student.
"What a cool bitch she was," Deborah says when Nina walks in.
"Oh, she tried on everything in the store. She couldn't make up her mind. I can't stand people like that!"
Nina thinks Deborah is often angry over things that don't matter, but she nods, trying to look sympathetic.
She walks across the shop to the back room where she and Blanca, the other seamstress, work. Blanca is already there, bent over one of the two industrial sewing machines that fill most of the room. Robert is in the corner at the workbench.
"Hola," Blanca says.
"Bien." It's one of Nina's few Spanish words.
Blanca bends back down over her work. Conversation ended. Blanca doesn't speak English. Nina thinks it unambitious of her that she doesn't even try to learn. Lucky for Blanca, Robert speaks Spanish.
"Howdy," Robert says, and waves for Nina to join him. "What do you think?" He shows her sketches of a jacket. Robert designs the clothes for the shop. Deborah handles the business side. That's their arrangement.
"Hmm. Nice," Nina says. The jacket has a belt and epaulets. It's far fancier than the simpler western wear that's the shop's specialty. Nina is sure it's Deborah's idea. Lately, she's been talking a lot about upgrading, adopting a more sophisticated look, maybe even importing some Italian leather pieces. Eventually, Deborah says, she doesn't want anything in the shop priced under $500. Nina thinks she's making a big mistake.
Nina goes to her drawer and gets out the leather skirt she is working on. Today she wants to finish it. She tries to push herself, not take too long on a piece. She is very careful when she sews, and rarely makes a mistake, which can be disastrous with leather—whole garments have to be thrown out—but she is slow, a lot slower than Blanca. Robert tells her not to worry, speed will come, but Deborah has complained a couple of times about her taking too long.
The skirt is made of split cowhide and she has to spend several minutes smoothing and bending and adjusting the thick, stubborn leather, so when she sets the machine in motion the skin won't bunch. When she's done stitching, she'll tool and decorate the skirt in a wavy pattern that Robert picked out.
She steps on the pedal and as the machine begins to purr, she feels content. She is lucky to have this job. When she first moved to Colorado a year ago, she had been unable to find work. Finally, she'd gotten a job in a stereo shop, as a salesgirl. But it soon became clear that the owner hired her to lure men into the store and when she proved not to be very good at it, he let her go. She could have told him right from the start that she wasn't much of a flirt. She thought she would have to turn around and go back home and then she saw the ad in the paper. Nina had always liked to sew. She had sewn her own clothes for years.
Deborah had interviewed her for the job. "It can be difficult making the transition to leather," she told Nina. "Some people never manage it."
But, so far, Nina thought she was managing it. Things were going pretty well. She was learning a business. If she wasn't making much money, at least she was earning enough to survive. And, she was living with Dan. She'd met Dan at the shop. He came in one afternoon looking for a jacket and Deborah asked her to take care of him. If Blanca was the better seamstress, Nina was the one who Deborah often asked to wait on customers. Nina had shown Dan what they had, explaining how everything was made of the finest vegetable tanned leathers.
"So this is what you do? Sell jackets?" he interrupted her.
"Well, usually, I sew. I make them," Nina said.
"Did you make this one?" He fingered a brown buckskin.
Nina laughed. "Not that one. But I've made several of the jackets here."
"That's incredible," he said, and then he asked her out to dinner.
He took her to Albuquerque, a Mexican restaurant that was popular with the college crowd. He told her he was from Greeley, a town in the middle of the state that was famous for its cattle ranches. You could smell Greeley from several miles away, he said. The stench of cow manure. His family had nothing to do with the cattle business though. His father was a doctor. He had a family practice. Nina was impressed. Her own father worked for the phone company.
"I used to be one of them," he said, waving an arm around the room at the students. "But I dropped out after a year to work with my hands. I'm finally doing what I want to do. Right now I've got a job helping put up a complex of condominiums on the edge of town. You might have seen them. They're pretty nice. The cheapest is going for ninety thousand."
Nina said she hadn't seen them, but she'd like to. "I'll show you tomorrow," he said, and then went on, "You know, this town is going to boom. I know it's going to happen. I can feel it. And I'm going to be here. I'm going to make a lot of money."
Listening to him, Nina got excited. Wasn't she here for the same reason? She had tried a year at a community college back home in Buffalo, but she wasn't sure where it was leading. Soon after quitting, she moved west. A friend of a friend was driving out and she got a ride with him.
"You know what I want?" she told Dan. "I want to open my own leather shop one day."
"That's great," Dan said. "I can really see you owning your own shop."
"Yeah. Sure. You'd be great at it."
Just before closing time, Nina finishes the leather skirt. Robert will look it over Monday. "Good" or "fine" he usually says, though a couple of times he has made her day and said, "Excellent."
She helps Deborah lock up the shop and goes to the corner to wait for Dan. After fifteen minutes, she starts looking at her watch. She waits another fifteen minutes and then goes to a phone booth and calls home. There is no answer. She waits five minutes more before she phones the man selling the car and tells him she won't be able to make it. "That's too bad," the man says, but he doesn't give her a hard time about rescheduling for the next day and she feels grateful. She hangs up and goes to catch the bus.
When she gets home, Dan isn't there. Nina scans the kitchen counter for a note. Something must have come up; she is certain he'll be home shortly.
In the living room, she picks up her knitting. It's a pullover sweater; she is making it unisex style, so that both she and Dan can wear it next winter. She knits a row, purls one, knits another. But examining her work, she finds she has made three mistakes. She tosses the sweater on the floor and turns on the television. A game show is on. She hates game shows—she's never been able to see herself enjoying that kind of out-of-the-blue luck—and flips the channels. She thinks of calling one of Dan's friends or even Dan's parents in Greeley—she met them once—but decides against it.
She stares some more at the television. If only she had a car, she could go somewhere, though where she isn't sure. Eventually, she walks to the liquor store at the edge of the subdivision and buys a bottle of wine. Sometime after one—she knows because the television is full of snow—she falls asleep on the pillows on the floor.
Nina wakes up with a terrible headache. She makes a cup of instant coffee, not bothering with the Mr. Coffee, and sits at the kitchen table to drink it. The neighbor's house is dark. So are all the houses she can see. She stares at the cloudless sky, watching it slowly lighten, becoming a translucent gray-blue. When she first arrived in Colorado, the big sky made her anxious. It was beautiful, yet so empty, enveloping. One time, after she and Dan had smoked a joint, they were driving on the highway, across the open plains, and the sky was all around them. Suddenly she felt frightened. Her palms were sweaty; her heart beat rapidly. She made Dan pull over to the side of the road. "Hold me," she said, and he had. But that was before. She's gotten used to the big sky, hasn't she? She notices it now almost not at all.
It takes Nina forty-five minutes to walk to her house-cleaning job, which is in a well-to-do neighborhood in the foothills overlooking town. She took the job on Saturday mornings to earn extra money to buy a car. From the subdivision, the walk is uphill all the way. The higher she climbs the nicer the homes become.
"I need you to concentrate on the twins' room," Cynthia announces, letting her in.
The twins' room looks as if a bomb hit it. As she picks up the toys strewn across the floor, returning them to the shelves, she thinks how every week she performs this ritual, giving some semblance of order to the lives of two messy seven-year-old girls, whom she has never met. Every time she comes, they are off with their friends or with their father, Lee, hiking or rock climbing or on some other exotic outing.
"I'm going to the store. I'll be back soon," Cynthia shouts from the hallway.
"OK." Nina shouts back. Cynthia always communicates with her from the next room.
As soon as she hears Cynthia drive off, Nina goes into the master bedroom and calls home from the phone on the night table beside the bed. She lets it ring twenty-five times. No answer. Her stomach churns.
She gets up off the bed and goes over to the teak bureau. When she has been alone in the house before, she wanted to look through the drawers, but didn't, telling herself it wouldn't be right. She finds that Lee's drawers are full of freshly pressed shirts, neat piles of underwear and socks; Cynthia's hold lots of lacy, silk lingerie. No surprises.
She goes into the living room and plops down on the leather lounge chair. The chair is positioned to provide an unobstructed view out the picture window. Nina stares at the flawless lawn—it's sodded—at Lee's four wheel drive parked on the wide white concrete driveway. She presses her shoulders into the spongy padding and puts her feet up on the ottoman. Maybe she'd feel better if she had a piece of furniture like this.
By the time Cynthia gets back, several hours later, Nina is finished.
"Oh, I hope I didn't keep you," Cynthia says.
"It's OK." Nina says.
"I'll be right back." Cynthia hurries down the hall. Nina knows she is looking over the house to see what kind of a job she has done. Once, after such an inspection, she asked Nina if she had cleaned the tub in the twins' bathroom.
For a minute, Nina felt panicky. Had she forgotten? But then she clearly recalled scrubbing the avocado green tiles.
Now, waiting for Cynthia, Nina feels guilty. She hadn't done as careful a job as she usually does. But she'd made up her mind to quit. She would call Cynthia later in the week and tell her.
"Looks good," Cynthia says, returning. She hands Nina the money. "See you next week." Nina nods. Not once, she thinks, has Cynthia asked to drive her home. She thinks about her appointment this afternoon to see the car.
Dan is not home. Nina wanders through the house's four rooms, finally throwing herself down on the water bed. She lies there for some time, hugging herself, before the phone rings.
"Hi," Dan says.
"Where are you?"
"At home in Greeley. Look, I'm sorry."
"What's going on?"
"I had to come home, after work, to pick something up. I must have been exhausted because I fell asleep and slept straight through the night. I tried calling you when I woke up this morning, but there was no answer."
"I was at my cleaning job."
"I forgot. Look, I'm leaving now. I'm on my way."
Nina hangs up without answering. She waits for Dan to call back. He doesn't, and she looks at the clock. It is at least an hour and a half drive from Greeley.
An hour later she hears his truck pull up. He would have had to hit 90 for most of the trip.
She is sitting at the kitchen table, when he comes in. She hears the door slam. She listens to him walk across the living room. And then he is there, at last, standing in the doorway, looking at her.
"You were with someone else," she blurts out.
He doesn't answer and she puts her face in her hands and begins to cry.
He comes over and puts his arms around her, pulling her toward him. She starts to pull away, but then she changes her mind, lets him hold her. In a little while, she thinks, they will go and look at the car.